Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 18:25 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, it looks like it’s pretty much over: the analyzing and the predicting. The expecting and the waiting. The visions and the rumors and the counting and the looking. Or maybe everything is just beginning. That’s what Jesus’ parable is about—the end and the beginning of all things. (Why? What did you think I was talking about?) “But concerning that day and that hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36). Concerning that Day, we are all like the virgins waiting for the Bridegroom. And how long will we have to wait? Only the Father of the Bridegroom knows. What sort of provision will we have to make? Only time will tell. Who knows how many times you will wake and sleep and wake again? It has been two millennia already. “And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). So it has and so it will; everywhere lamps burn lower and lower.
Even so, that day and that hour are still coming. Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. At midnight the cry goes out. The girls wake up. There are ten of them: ten virgins, ten maidens, ten attendants of the wedding party. All ten have lamps; all ten are waiting; all ten grow drowsy, and nod off, and are sleeping until this moment when the cry goes out: “The Bridegroom is coming! Everyone come out to meet Him!” All ten wake up. All ten get ready to trim their burned wicks and light their lamps again. But five are foolish and five are wise. The wise ones have brought extra oil, so no matter how long the Bridegroom takes, they will be ready. No matter how late into the night they have to wait, they will be prepared.
The foolish ones had oil only for the moment. Their lamps burned brightly at first; in all the excitement, all the preparation for the coming of the Bridegroom and the wedding party, they had enough oil for the moment. If the Bridegroom had come at that time, they would have been ready. But He delays. He waits longer than they think He will. And when the cry finally goes out, they have no more oil. So they say to the wise: Give us some of your oil. And the wise say, No, because then we may not have enough both for us and for you. Go to the sellers of oil and buy some for yourselves. At midnight? But they go.
There is an interval between the cry and the coming. They have heard the cry and now they are on their way to buy oil when the Bridegroom comes. And those who are ready go into the house with Him; the party begins and the door is shut. And then, later, afterward, the others come and they say, “Lord, lord, open now also to us.” But He says, “I do not know you.” Which must be some of the most terrifying words that the Lord can speak, because He knows those who are His. He knows them, they know His voice, and they follow Him. But to these others, the Lord says, “I do not know you.” And they are left outside. All over a little bit of oil.
And everyone wants to know what the oil represents. I wish I could say, “here is the definitive meaning of the oil,” or at least, “here is the Lutheran understanding”! But Jesus doesn’t tell us, and there have been so many different interpretations, that it would be impossible for me to give you the single correct one. Is the oil Jesus’ word? Is it faith? Grace? The Holy Spirit? The Sacraments? The safest answer is probably that it is all of them, because they are all tied together to make a sinner ready for the Day of the Lord.
Or maybe we should ask the question this way, What do I need to be ready for the coming of the Lord, for that day and hour that I do not know? What is necessary for me right now? Is it faith in Him who is coming? Is it repentance? Is it perseverance or courage? Is it humility? Willingness to suffer for the Name of Jesus, and to deny myself and my own desires, lest they overtake me? “Sorrowful awareness of the world’s brokenness” and longing for all things to be put right? For God’s name to be holy and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? All of this, and maybe more, depending on where we are in the long night of this ending world.1
There are two things that I can say for sure about the oil. First, it is something that cannot be shared. When the foolish ask the wise to share their oil, they say no, because even though the Bridegroom is coming soon, they will not have enough for both themselves and the foolish. And the second thing is that no one can walk by the light of another’s lamp. Which is maybe the strangest thing to me in this parable. My question is, Why don’t the foolish ones just wait until the Bridegroom comes and walk beside the wise ones on their way to the house? Why do they need to go get oil at all? But they can’t, because this isn’t just a regular wedding with a groom and attendants and a party. This is the Reign of God; this is how the Reign of God will be revealed on the last day when the Lord finally does appear. So they cannot share their oil, and they cannot walk in the light of another’s lamp.
They wait together, but they wait with their own lamps and their own oil. Just as the Church does. We all wait together in faith, and hope, and love. But no one can believe, hope, or love for anyone else. And there are those who are ready and those who are not. The wise and the foolish. However we describe the oil, those without any oil are the same as the branches that are cut off from the vine. A cut-off branch may appear alive for a little while; it may even have leaves and flowers and fruit. But if it is cut off from the vine, eventually it will wither and dry up and die. It can happen that someone who rejoices at the first, who rejoices to hear of the coming of the Bridegroom, can have oil only for the moment. The oil can be burned up, and the wick dry out, and the flame extinguished. The oil, like the life from the vine, must be continual. And if some refuse to be where the dispenser of oil is, if some refuse to prepare with the oil as it is given out now, what makes them think that they will be able to buy it at midnight? If some refuse to be where the Bridegroom has promised to be invisibly, what makes them think that they will want to be with Him when He comes visibly?
Because it is now that the cry goes out: The Bridegroom is coming! Come and meet Him! It is not yet midnight. The cry goes out week after week, and day by day: the Bridegroom is coming! Come and meet Him! Some will not be ready; some will be too late to buy oil. Some will think themselves wise, but turn out to be foolish when it comes to the things of God. Some will think that the Bridegroom has delayed so long that He might not come at all. And they will, like the master of servants in the parable before this one, begin to eat and get drunk, and beat their fellow servants. They will take for granted the time between the cry and the coming, which is stretching over 2,000 years now, and they will refuse to do what God has given them to do. And for those who think this, who take His gifts for granted, as if they will always be available, who always say, “tomorrow, tomorrow,” the Day will come on them like a thief in the night, and for them, the Day will be the fulfillment of Amos’ prophecy, “It will be darkness, and not light.”
But not so with you! You are not of the darkness, but of the light! The Lord is not slow in keeping His promises, as some understand slowness. Yes, the interval between the first cry and the coming has lasted a very long time. But what is that to God? A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. You know that He will come, and that He will not delay any longer than the Father’s perfect will. The day will not take you unaware, because you are of the light. Whether you sleep or whether you are awake when He comes, you will rejoice to meet Him. The cry goes out and you have gathered to meet the Bridegroom, awaiting His appearance. He is always where He promises to be: He is here, though we do not yet see Him. He comes to this house to gather His holy ones, those who will hear the cry and rejoice to fill their lamps with the oil of gladness. He speaks words of forgiveness and peace; He feeds you with His own Body and Blood. You cannot be any more prepared for His revealing than to trust the Word He speaks to you about His presence among you.
There is no need to delay. Today is the day of salvation. The Church continues to wait in patient hope, knowing that His delay means salvation for many. We wait, each of us in faith and hope and love, but we wait together as His Church. We do not wallow in our hope; we live by it. We who are certain of His coming, and that we do not need to worry about that, are free to do the work He has given us to do. You can be sure that when He comes, all the work you have done as one who bears His name will not be empty or worthless. When He comes, you will rise in joy to meet Him, because the holy chain of salvation connects you to Him: the Holy Spirit, who has called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified His whole Church on earth, also daily and richly in this Church forgives your sins and the sins of all believers; and on the last day the same Spirit will raise us and all the dead, and give eternal life to us and all believers. This is most certainly true.
However stale is the air that most people are breathing, we live, even now, in an atmosphere charged with the festal joy of that promise. The Lord will come finally and forever, and with a command, with the cry of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, He will raise up the dead in Christ first, and then we will go out to meet Him, before we come into the eternal house, the eternal feast, the eternal party of the Lamb and His bride. Yes, He says—again, He says—I am coming soon. And the Church continues to pray its table prayer, as it has for centuries: Amen, come, Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/6/20
1Much of this paragraph I paraphrased from Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs’ commentary, Matthew 21:1-28:20, 1323-1324.